It’s 7am on a Sunday. It’s my volunteer day as a Visitor Experience Guide at Paignton Zoo. The weather forecast was good and a quick glance out of the window reveals it might even have been right!
I make sure my own menagerie of reptilian pets is watered and spot cleaned. Time for a quick cup of black coffee and to check I have everything I need for the day. Then it’s out of the house for 8.45am, with a mile walk to the train station and the 9.03am train.
I use the last fifteen minutes before leaving to read up on the animal profiles in my Visitor Experience Guide information pack. My role covers Amphibian Ark and the Wildlife Garden, Reptile Tropics, Desert House, Investigate and Crocodile Swamp. With so many animals in so many areas, it never hurts to revise!
Key points to remember are range and habitat, diet and feeding, behaviour, conservation and threats, and breeding. I feel pretty confident with most of the reptiles, but I must confess there are a lot of bird names to remember in Reptile Tropics! I cover these areas with two other volunteers, Tony and Hannah.
It’s a short trip from Dawlish to Paignton and I use the train time for further reading or just to relax. It’s another mile or so to walk from Paignton train station to the Zoo. The first thing after signing in is a get-together in the Volunteer Room, where I meet and have a coffee with the other volunteers.
I check through the VEG folder for any updates from the week or any notes that Neil, the Volunteer Co-ordinator, may have left. We have a general chat before deciding to go our merry ways. Tony heads for Crocodile Swamp whilst myself and Hannah go to Reptile Tropics and the Desert House. These are the exhibits visitors get to first. We swap over and cover the other areas after lunch.
As a VEG volunteer I am a face and a voice for the Zoo. Visitors can easily identify us in our royal blue uniforms if they have questions. We are in close contact with the visitors and provide a narrative for the animals when necessary or point out animals that may be hard to spot (reptiles and amphibians are masters at hiding!).
Looking at animals is fun, learning about them is important. People appreciate having questions answered or extra information supplied (it’s a bit like adding sound to a silent film). It’s also an opportunity to let visitors know about the Zoo’s conservation work. Observation plays a key part in the role. Sometimes I overhear people ask questions they don’t know the answer to and won’t ask. They may just need prompting, particularly children. Gently engaging with visitors can lead to wonderful conversations that last up to 10 or 15 minutes.